Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Book Review: "Laurel Canyon"

Book Review of “Laurel Canyon – The Inside Story of Rock and Rolls’ Legendary Neighborhood” by Michael Walker, 2006

In homage to Gramsci, I thought I’d write about a cultural issue. This one relates to the ‘state’ of things here in the U.S.A. This book is about the effect this Los Angeles canyon, and the people who lived in it, had on rock and folk music in the 60s, 70s and beyond. The issue relates to what I consider to be the essence of creativity – an environment where like-minded people can work together to increase the value of their art. History is replete with this happening - the groups of U.S. transcendentalists and other writers in Concord MA and Hartford, CT; the Bloomsbury group in London; the writers and painters of the 20s and 30s in Paris; the Bolshevik culturalists after the revolution in Moscow; and the later bohemians of Greenwich Village, the Algonquin Hotel in New York and North Beach in San Francisco. Musically, there were the hippie bands of San Francisco, and all the music incubator cities - Memphis, Nashville, Austin, New York, Athens, Detroit, Seattle and, even, Minneapolis. And there was Laurel Canyon in LA.

Why does this matter? Because essentially, when a local music or cultural scene matures, it has more power over the corporate controllers of culture than it would if the corporations ‘created’ the music, or they ‘discovered’ the talent, or they ‘decided’ on the trends. The best music comes out of local roots and environments. So does the best literature and painting. It is the answer to corporate culture. Local scenes can ‘explode’ on a national and international level. To paraphrase, it takes a village to raise a good art form.

The author, Michael Walker, is kind of a kitschy, poppy LA type, who trades on gossip and big names, but what do you expect about a book on rock? I did not really understand the interrelationships between the bands and musicians in LA until this book. LA rock seemed somewhat sterile and isolated, and more driven by commercialism. I thought the situation of a creative enclave was reserved for San Francisco at the time. However, a similar scene did happen in LA, close to the music clubs of the Sunset Strip, and also close to Hollywood and the mainstream music industry. Laurel Canyon musicians 'jammed' together constantly in the houses and porches of the canyon, mixing with artists, producers and dancers, then went down to the “Strip” clubs, to play, watch other musicians, or plan deals. All this outside of Hollywood or the record factories churning out Vic Damone. And they changed those industries because of the creative clout they had.

Many of the people and bands lived in Laurel Canyon. Frank Zappa moved into a large ‘cabin’ at a crossroads in the Canyon, and for half a year, played host to the GTOs, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and some ex-Turtles. Unlike his somewhat stern and sarcastic persona, he was actually encouraging to the talent that flocked up the road to his house. His ‘cabin’ became an endless music party, without many drugs, until the potential for violent behavior made Gail Zappa decide to move the family to a quieter location in the Canyon.

Musicians like Mark Volman of the Turtles, Gene Hillman of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, Roger McQuinn of the Byrds, Carole King, ex of the Brill building, Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Love’s Arthur Lee, Judy Collins, Mick Dolenz of the Monkees, Nick St Nicholas of Steppenwolf, John Densmore and Robby Krieger of the Doors and John Mayall all spent time in the canyon. Mayall did an album, “Blues for Laurel Canyon.” Canned Heat lived in Northridge, then moved to the canyon for awhile, until their house burned down. Neil Young lived over in the more isolated Topanga Canyon, as would be Neil’s wont. Of course the most famous residents are The Mamas and the Papas' Cass Elliot, and Byrds' David Crosby and Buffalo Springfields' Stephen Stills, and the king and queen of the canyon, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, who co-habited in that house. The former wrote “Our House” about their small abode on Lookout Drive. The latter did an album, “Ladies of the Canyon.” Elliot actually introduced Nash to Crosby, and put that band together, because she knew harmonies so well. Nash has said his whole life changed because he knew Elliot.

The bands and managers that lived in the Canyon attracted a whole ‘LA sound” which was really folk rock. The Byrds were the first big breakthrough, as the prior Buffalo Springfield with Stills and Young did not make it commercially. Bands like America came out of LA as well, sounding almost exactly like Crosby, Still and Nash, the biggest name of the canyon. These bands and their sound were the link between the earlier ‘pure’ LA folk scene, and the later, mellow Canyon “California rock” of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Brown. "California rock" gave way to later LA hair rock bands like Motley Crue; then punkers like “X” dominated the clubs of the Strip, to be followed by the alternative rock of Janes Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and No Doubt. Nikki Sixx, from the Crue, actually lived in the canyon at one time, oddly enough.

The Canyon was a short drive to the Sunset Strip, where legendary clubs like the Whiskey, the Troubadour (which was actually on Santa Monica), the Rainbow and Rodneys’ English Disco made stars of many of these bands. Without this display area, they could not have flowered. Like the Avalon, Winterland and Fillmore in San Francisco, it was a natural part of the ‘scene.’ It even applied to outsiders – Elton John’s career started at the Troubadour. He became a star after a playing 6 nights in 1970. Linda Ronstadt was no one until she hit that stage. British bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream visited Rodney’s as their home away from home, then visited up the road. Labels like Geffen grew out of this scene, a label and managers who actually gave the bands and songwriters more power and money than they’d ever had before.

All good things end, and according to Walker, what did-in the ‘hippie’ vibe of the canyon was cocaine, money and Charles Manson. Manson’s gang, who’d hung around some of the parties in the canyon, killed 4 people in Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills. At that point, the wide open scene of the Canyon lead to doors shutting along the wooded streets. Manson actually had moved in with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson for awhile. Wilson was too clueless to get rid of them, as Wilson was having sex with two of Manson’s women. What Walker doesn't point out is that doors closed all over LA… not just in the Canyon. Walker also links Manson with “Altamont” as a ‘culture’ ender. Though how a poorly planned rock festival ‘killed’ a counter-culture is a theory only a Time journalist could love. The Dead, for one, bailed on Altamont when they saw how bad the concert was. The only thing that took a fall at that racetrack was the Stone’s hubris, and one dead concert-goer. Manson was no different. Guy with long hair who likes the Beatles kills someone? End of the counter-culture? Come on.

The second poison was cocaine, which slowly substituted for weed and LSD. Notorious coke heads like Crosby and Stills were just a few of the victims of a massive infusion of coke into the rock and roll industry. As Walker explains it, coke is expensive, and is not ‘shared,’ so coke heads are naturally more possessive and less friendly to anyone. The third wicket was money. Walker points out that behind the friendliness of the canyon was a desire to be famous and get ahead in their careers. When many of these very young musicians finally became overnight millionaires, and bought Porsches, it changed the atmosphere, as you’d expect. After awhile, the small inexpensive houses that had drawn them there in the first place, and the run-down condition of much of the steep canyon roads and buildings lead people and families to moving out, and ‘up’, to better houses, and a different, less collective way of life.

The funny part is, Walker still lives in Laurel Canyon right now. Each year, the present denizens of the various roads intersecting with Laurel Canyon Boulevard, between Mulholland and Sunset, get together for a picture at the Canyon Country Store, the heart of the canyon. In the old days this store saw, day or night, famous musicians wandering in looking to buy something. It is still there, still painted, still full of the signs of those times, and still open for business.

Red Frog, 10-21-2007 -
And I might have bought it at Mayday books, but I didn’t. But I DID see Woodstock at Mayday Books! And of course you can by Gramsci at Mayday. Do so.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Book Review: "Monkey Wrench Gang"

Book Review –
The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, 1975

This classic is the first fictional manifesto of the radical environmental movement. Abbey helped found Earth First! and was a member thereafter. He came from a poor background, became a partially college-educated anarchist, then took to fiction. The forward indicates that everything in the book happened at one time ... in probably the same way Mark Twain means it.

This is the story of four radicals – a “jack” Mormon river rafter, Seldom Seen Smith; a Jewish hippie girl from new York, Bonnie Abzug; an overweight surgeon, Dr. Sarvis, and an ex-Viet Vet, George Hayduke (Doonesbury anyone…) who, while taking a raft trip down the Colorado, decide to defend the Arizona-Utah desert together. The desert, under assault from strip mining, road building, industrial tourism, real estate developers, energy exploiters and politicians, needs someone to stand up for it. Their dream is to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam, but first they start with ‘smaller targets’ – road building equipment in the Utah canyonlands; strip-mining trains and bridges on Black Mesa; forest-destroying chain tractors north of the Grand Canyon, and bridges over the smaller canyons in Utah above Glen Canyon.

The author, Edward Abbey, wrote some 14 books, and also cut down ugly billboards along highways, sabotaged bulldozers creating useless roads and cut barbed wire fencing that trapped wild animals, while burning tires and one mansion. Some of these events are in the book. He worked as a forest ranger all over the northern Arizona and southern Utah area – Arches national park, Organ Pipe and Petrified Forest national monuments and the northern rim of Grand Canyon national park. He spent an immense amount of time alone, out on the desert, in hikes or staying in one place in a sleeping bag, which also might have helped his writing. While never reading Muir, and making gentle fun of Thoreau, he is more like a rural Ned Ludd, the famous slinger of ‘sabots’.

Abbey is an excellent writer. He is poetic, and uses sentences in odd ways. The book has an edge of ‘comedy’, as the quartet face the numerous dangers they are taking up with a little too much nonchalance. Almost like the “Fabulous Four” facing down the hyper-American evil ones destroying their desert. When eventually caught, after numerous hair-raising and hysterical chases, they get off with a wrist slap and a wink. Hayduke eventually gets ‘killed’ – but of course he doesn’t. Nowadays, the present environmental activist trying to destroy construction equipment would be arrested by the Department of Homeland Security, treated like Al Queda, and put in jail for most of their lives. Recent sentences for some California activists who burned up environmentally-destructive Hummers on a new car lot was in the dozens of years. So we know what this society wants now – screw nature, jail anyone who defends it, and throw away the key. Property destruction in the name of environmental protection is terrorism! This has changed since Abbey wrote. If anything, the ‘bastards’ have only gotten worse, as Hayduke puts it.

The focus of many of Abbey’s books is the Glen Canyon dam, as the epitome of human destruction in the desert. Indian ruins, towns and petroglyphs, beautiful canyons, rare plants and trees, animal and fish habitats were destroyed when it was built, to create a fake boat playground for water skiers and fisherman. This of course starved the downstream areas for water. Water and electricity were then sent to unsustainable cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix. If you’ll remember, Earth First’ initial protest was to unveil a giant plastic sheet with a ‘crack’ on it down the Glen Canyon dam, symbolizing what they would like to do with that structure. Now some smaller dams all over the country are being demobilized and destroyed, as the damage they create is higher than the benefits they produce. This might come one day to Glen Canyon too.

The role of environmentalism in U.S. politics since 1970 has grown. During that year, the first Earth Day was declared, and later governments under Nixon and Carter started to pay attention to environmental issues like species protection and water/air quality. This was all partly spurred by the oil boycott of 1973. Since then there has been a counter-attack on the environment, culminating in the criminal Bush administration. Albert Gore, who you’ll remember was the vice-president under the neo-liberal Bill Clinton, had few environmental accomplishments to remember from his 8 years in POWER. Now, as an environmental activist, he is trying to save capitalism (and imperialism) from itself.

Environmentalism should be part of a modernized ‘transitional’ program, but in and of itself, it cannot overthrow capitalism. Marxists point out that profits naturally conflict with the needs of the environment, and a profit-making society cannot really pay attention to the biosphere. An excellent book on this is “Marx’s Ecology” by John Bellamy Foster, which shows Marx and Engels equating the ravaging of the working class and the ravaging of nature. There is certainly money to be made in environmentally-friendly products and technologies, which is the financial sector Gore is working for. But to configure the whole U.S. society into a carbon-neutral and especially non-growth one is impossible for capitalism to accomplish. No more than it can become a true democracy.

Essentially, environmentalism means a slowing, and even a reversal of harmful growth in the capitalist heartlands. And ‘growth’ is the heart of capitalism and corporations. To be fully implemented it will mean putting ‘society’ ahead of the individual. It will require the government to be in control of production. It will require the community to share water and energy and food. It will essentially restore a cooperative model of life and sustainability from an unbalanced and exploitative one. And this Al Gore is not prepared to do.

Edward Abbey would be proud if this happened. He was an inspiration to greens who oppose the complacency and horse trading of the ‘big’ Green organizations. At the fictional trial of three of the “monkey wrench gang” at the end of the book, Abbey noted that the defense managed to get two secret “Sierra Club” members on the jury. The defense was hoping for an acquittal vote from them. Later, they found out both voted full felony convictions for the three environmental ‘terrorists.’ We need a new mass environmental movement that they cannot put in jail.

And I got it at MayDay Books –

Red Frog – 10/15/2007

Monday, October 1, 2007

Book Review: "Life & Fate"

Book Review: "Life and Fate" by Vassily Grossman, 1960

This book has been looked at as the Soviet version of "War & Peace," Tolstoy's masterpiece of imperial Russia and the Napoleonic wars, i.e. the 'great Russian novel." And it succeeds, perhaps better than it's predecessor. One of Grossman’s characters even makes a point of saying, as a humorous aside, that Tolstoy never lived at the same time as the battle of Borodino or the Napoleonic invasion. The obvious hint is that the novel you are reading WAS written by someone involved in the events.

Grossman was a Jewish supporter of the Russian revolution, first discovered as a writer by Maxim Gorky. His first short story, “In the Town of Berdichev,” became a famous Soviet film, “Commissar.” Grossman wrote several novels during Stalinist times, when he became a member of the Writers Union. He reported during WWII for Red Star, the Soviet miltary paper. He covered Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, and was the first journalist to write about a German death camp, Treblinka. He worked with Ilya Ehrenburg on the "Black Book", a log of Nazi crimes against the Jewish people of Russia, a book that is still unpublished in Russia. His mother died when the Nazi's annihilated the Jewish population of his home town Berdichev – 20,000-30,000 people, similar to what they did at Baba Yar but on a lesser scale. His attitude towards the bureaucracy began to change during and after the war. Just prior to Stalin's death in 1952, Grossman was most likely on a list to be imprisoned. When Grossman asked Krushchev to publish Life and Fate in 1960, the KGB confiscated all copies. It was finally published in the West after being smuggled out in the early 1980s by Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich.

This novel is 871 pages, and is not for the faint of heart. Like War and Peace, it is a panoramic 1942-1943 portrait of the U.S.S.R. during the battle of Stalingrad. Grossman traces a large Russian family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered across this vast country during war time. Scenes from the book include the ruined factories and power station on the front line at Stalingrad, and across the Volga in the command areas; a science lab removed from Moscow to Kazan, and then returned to Moscow once more; imprisoned Soviet soliders in German concentration camps and imprisoned Communists and others in Soviet labour camps, including the Lubyanka; hospitals full of dying soldiers and the evacuated women waiting for them in various eastern towns; a Jewish ghetto in Berdichev surrounded by the fascists and a Nazi death camp itself; Nazi's like Eichmann, Hitler and Von Paulus; Soviet airfields and the mobile Soviet tank troops on the steppe, preparing to encircle Von Paulus’ army at Stalingrad. All add up to a series of intimate miniatures of a nation at war. Over it all is the oppressive rule of the Soviet bureaucracy, which seeps into every aspect of the novel. Some of the characters have a very difficult time handling the pressure of this state. You can see the intimate internal battles as they rage, especially in the character Victor Shtrum, who deals with the moral pressures of denunciations and confessions. Constant references to the purges of 1937 and the collapse of the Soviet armies in 1941 due to Stalin's trust of Hitler are a prelude to the action.

Like many other observers of the war years, Grossman notes that the war actually weakened the bureaucracy. The war mobilized the Soviet people, who relied on their own initiatives. The prior purges in the military and Party, the forced collectivization and the gross military errors of 1941 showed them that the rulers were not all powerful, no matter their propaganda machine or bloody hand. Trotskyists also noticed a revival of the Soviet working class during and after the war, as they became more confident of their own strengths. Many observers think this is what helped lead to the revelations in the 1950s by Khruschev, who was a general at Stalingrad.

Special reference is made to the encircled 'House 6/1'on the front line at Stalingrad, where the Soviet commander no longer sends reports back to headquarters, and the men live in the style of a commune, not a latter-day Soviet military unit. A commissar sent to dismiss the commander is 'winged' while he sleeps and must be sent back to a hospital, probably the first instance of 'fragging' in a novel on WWII. The whole house and everyone in it is then destroyed by a massive Nazi assault. Of course the 'fragging' also saved the commissar's life. The famous machine-gunning of retreating Soviet soldiers by NKVD units, made public in the film "Enemy at the Gates" is bemoaned as a military mistake by some officers. Even Ziatsev, the sniper from that film, makes an appearance, as do many other Soviet and German officers, some with their real names and some without. Grossman lived with and observed people from every grouping in Soviet society for many years from the inside. His depiction of the characters in each group is one of the great strengths of the novel.

Grossman had a life-long interest in science, and the improbable lead character Shtrum is a somewhat self-involved but creative nuclear scientist, who is dismissed for a time by the Central Committee science 'commissar" for not being "Lysenkoist" enough, or perhaps being too Jewish. In a twist of fate, Stalin himself calls Shtrum and rehabilites him, as Shtrum is involved in the valuable field of nuclear research. He has been likened to Grossman himself, or a real Soviet scientist, Lev Landau. The ties and names of the main Shaposhnikov family in the book are somewhat confusing, and hard to link to each other, but as you read you 'kind' of understand who's who. The last letter from a fictional Jewish mother in Berdichev's Jewish ghetto is based on Grossman's mother, and is heart-rending. The scenes from the death camps have become familiar to western readers and film goers, and so it must be remembered you are reading some of the first literature to describe it, if not the first.

Grossman gradually was repelled by Stalinism to the point where he equated it with fascism. Like other honest observers - Orwell and Solzhenitzyn come to mind - he developed slowly in the direction of a kind of social humanism, angry at the use or misuse of Marxism in the name of slaughter and totalitarianism. This novel stands as a great monument to the Soviet people, and to a great writer's search for 'truth'. Relatively unknown in the west, as are most Soviet writers and painters, Grossman may one day rank as the best literary product of that era, even standing above Babel, Solzhenitzyn, Gorky, Serge, Sholokhov, Rybakov and Ehrenburg.

- By Red Frog, 10/1/2007 – and I might have bought it at May Day books!